Jaipur Cool: Pink Panache

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Heritage meets swank to create a new Jaipur chic—and it’s not just about a literary festival

THE INSTRUCTIONS PROVIDED are simple enough; call once you reach the GPO on MI Road, park there and then walk into Chameli galli, as the car will not fit. At the end of this nondescript Jaipur alley bordered by gem stores—that insist footwear be removed at the threshold, and that orders be made only in bulk—rests the office of Rashtradoot, a Rajasthan-based Hindi daily. Last year, quietly and with little fanfare, something significant happened here: two daily pages of English content were introduced to this 66-year-old broadsheet. Named ‘Arbit’, these two centre pages transformed the third largest Hindi paper of the state into the first and only ‘hybrid newspaper’ of the world, says Divij Sharma, director of Rashtradoot. The articles in this section are myriad, from informative titbits on psychedelic drugs, to opinion articles by Jaipur’s cognoscenti, to columns on the less-known people and places of the city. The writing might be of uneven quality, but these English pages in the Jaipur edition of a Rajasthan paper herald that change is upon us and that change is here to stay.

A decade or so ago, Jaipur was a place teenagers shuffled to in order to visit their grandparents, and where friends flocked to attend weddings. But in the last few years, it has become a petridish. Here traditional artisanship and original entrepreneurship have converged to create a host of new ventures. It has always been a hub for gems, and the source for Sanganer and Bagru block prints. Here in Jaipur, the arts and crafts inform daily lives. Beauty and aesthetics are not aspirations, rather they are a requirement. It is the home of brands such as Amrapali and Anokhi, which have come to define Indian aesthetics for a discerning clientele. But now the city has taken these very building blocks and zazzed them up to create novelties.

Jaipur is no longer just lassi and laal maas, Hawa Mahal and Johri Bazar. Today in Jaipur you can start your day by sipping a single origin pour-over at a coffee shop (at Curious Coffee), fork into makloubeh (layered Palestinian pilaf with lamb and vegetables) for lunch (at Caffe Palladio), browse through designer bags and clothes in the evening (at Narain Niwas Palace), nibble on Belgian dark chocolate with whisky (All Things Jaipur) when wilting, have an exclusive date at Wolf Studio (Hotel Clarks Amer) and end your day clinking with The Jaipuri (a cocktail of gin, sweet vermouth and lemongrass at Bar Palladio). The English pages in the local newspaper are just one sign of how the city has embraced a new reality without losing its original moorings. The city has opened up not through imitation or mere mall-ification, but by fostering its own kind. Priya Kapoor, editorial director, Roli Books, who travels frequently to Jaipur and who has painstakingly sourced products for the flagship gift and souvenir shop at Amber Fort, by CMYK, says it best: “Jaipur is not apeing anything. Jaipur has its own cool and its own chic. In Jaipur the bazaars and the boutiques speak to each other. It is not like in Delhi, where going to Old Delhi means embarking upon a trip. In Jaipur, it all happens right there.”

Jaipur today is no longer just Hawa Mahal and Johri Bazar. Today in Jaipur you can start your day by sipping a single origin pour-over at a coffee shop, shop at a boutique to sample truly modern jewellery, fork into makloubeh for lunch and browse through designer bags and clothes in the evening

While the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which marks its 10th anniversary this year, put the city on the global map, Rajasthan’s capital has attracted artists and craftsmen for centuries. Sawai Jai Singh II (1688–1743) is the man most often credited for the shape and layout of the city. Built on an ancient Hindu grid pattern found in archaeological ruins of 3000 BCE, it was designed keeping in mind city planning and architecture. By 1733, Jaipur officially replaced Amber as capital of the Kachwahas. Scholars and craftspeople from all over India settled down in the relative safety of this rich city, as Sawai Jai Singh II invited renowned thinkers, artists, tantriks, painters, architects and town planners from across the country. Today when one wanders through the well-laid out lanes of Johri Bazaar, one can still sense and see the ancient city.

JLF brings thousands of people to the city every January, and thus provides an opportunity for different ideas to be aired and new ventures to be recognised. More than 300,000 people visited the Festival last year, proving a boon to local businesses. This annual influx of visitors has influenced the city’s cultural and economic landscape. Sharma explains that his family-owned paper decided to “cross the Rubicon” when they realised that there needn’t be just an English or just a vernacular paper. Having launched on January 19th, 2016, he says that the newspaper with a 800,000 readership has seen a 10-15 per cent rise in circulation since then. Sharma, who returned from Mumbai in 2013, giving up a nearly decade-long career in banking, says that a surge of confidence has swept the city and that this revival in Rajasthan is making people look inward. Other well-heeled professionals, like Sharma, are also choosing to return to the city, not only for the comfort of family, but for other ‘hybrid’ business opportunities, which nurture and—importantly—reimagine their roots.

Sawai Jai Singh made the environment conducive to artists and tourists 400 years ago. Today we can see the impact

Take the case of Divya Shekawat and Shivangini Singh. These two Jaipur-based 20-something friends launched the brand Kesya (derived from the Hindi word for saffron, ‘kesariya’) in 2015. Specialising in cufflinks and buttons, the brand focuses on re- invigorating traditional Rajasthani arts such as hand painting and enamel work. Kesya brings together the marketing expertise of Shekawat and Shivangini’s skill in design to create male accessories. While their fathers’ and grandfathers’ immaculate bandhgalas and achkans provided their canvas, their inspiration comes from all things Japiur—whether it is motifs at Amber Fort or royal family insignia. On these cufflinks, flamingos perch, horsemen canter, dogs chase and mallards soar. Made on sterling silver, each cufflink allows its user ‘to wear a little piece of Rajasthan on their sleeve’. Shivangini, who grew up in Delhi and worked in the Capital with Kama, moved to Jaipur only in 2015. But in her hometown, she found both inspiration and a passion. In the famed gallies of old Jaipur, Shekawat (who also moved to the city in 2015) and she identified their karigars, from Jodhpur they sourced their dyes, from Udaipur they garnered glass and jaali techniques. The making of the cufflinks is particularly labour intensive as it is completely handmade and for each colour the cufflink returns to the kiln, often resulting in great wastage. But with the shaadi season in full swing, business is soaring as their button sets and cufflinks have become a coveted gift for wedding parties. Having moved to the city only a year-and-a-half ago, Shivangini is full of appreciation for its receptive nature and its aesthetics. She says, “There is so much inspiration around, in every shop and all the gallies. I love living here.”

If Shekawat and Shivangini specialise in the minutiae of cufflinks and buttons, then Vijay Singh Ajairajpura of Rajputana Customs grapples with the big and the buff. Seven years ago, he moved back to Jaipur from working in a media house in Mumbai. Today he builds around 12 custom-made bikes a year. This motorcycle outfit, based in the heart of Jaipur, which employs fulltime machinists, painters, fabricators and craftsmen, modifies existing bikes and builds them from scratch. Born in Jaipur and educated at a boarding school, Vijay first rode a motorcycle—‘a dirt modified BSA Falcon aka a BSA Bond’—as a seven-year-old on the city’s motocross track (which has now been converted into Central Park). With a degree in Mass Communication from Canada, and having worked in Mumbai, he returned to Jaipur in June 2009. His second bike, Lightfoot, was commissioned by actor John Abraham in July 2010, and brought Vijay instant recognition. While some of the bikes have intricate bidri work on the handles, for instance, others are robust, even bratty. Each bike is christened a unique name, such as Nandi, Laado, Rajmata and even Bittoo. Vijay, who spends all his time tinkering and building in the garage, says, “Being in Jaipur is a great help, since a lot of manufacturing happens here. You get great machinery and you can find the raw materials, whether it is aluminium or titanium or stainless steel.” In the bazaars he finds sellers who are resourceful and helpful.

Jaipur is not apeing anything. It has its own cool and its own chic. In Jaipur, the bazaars and the boutiques speak to each other

This reference to the community and collaboration comes up frequently in conversation with other young designers as well. Most of them share similar life arcs. They have studied in top schools, worked in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai, but have then chosen to return and set up their own business, often backed by their influential families.

Not far from Shivangini’s workshop, we find Aavriti Jain’s boutique called Teatro Dhora, touted as ‘Jaipur’s first concept store’ that opened in 2014. This space is more than a shop as it is also used for music performances and movie projections. Twenty-six-year old Jain, an alum of Istituto Marangoni, Italy, conceived Dhora as a product line ‘conceptualised in Milan, manufactured in Rajasthan’. The necklaces and earrings found here are free of fuss and excess. Embellishments have given way to clean lines. Jain had her own set of challenges when she first started her business here. Workmen would hesitate, even refuse, to take orders from her as they would insist on talking only to ‘Sirji’. The printer would ask her why she wanted visiting cards as she was only cashing in on her father’s money. But Jain has overcome those obstacles, which Indian businesswomen face in much of the country. While the city is still conservative, she appreciates the expertise of her local clientele. As Jain says, “Everyone in Jaipur understands craft. Everyone is making something. People have 10 questions for you before they buy something. They are educated customers, they will ask you about the silk mix and the thread count, for example.”

Another company started by young entrepreneurs, which not only cashes in on Rajasthani obsession (horses and polo) but enhances it, is Polofactory. Co-founders Jai Singh and Vikramaditya Barkana catered only to polo players (as most polo equipment is made in Argentina) when they started in 2012, but today it is more of a polo lifestyle company that provides everything from polo inspired merchandise to luxury polo holidays. Polofactory has the advantage that both the founders have been deeply involved with horses. Barkana returned to Jaipur after working in New Zealand for six years, with a leading polo pony trainer. Jai, who is from Jaipur, says that he has seen a major change in the city in the last few years, adding, “Kids here would now rather set up their own business than move to Delhi or Mumbai. Sawai Jai Singh made the environment conducive to artists and tourists 400 years ago. Today we can see the impact. We can see a revival now.”

Kannbar is another Jaipur-based brand which brings together Rajasthani crafts with modern design. Started by the designer duo Abhimanyu Singh Rathore and Barbara Anna Kosiorek, Kannbar bags, launched in 2015, use durrie and zari work. Each bag is a work of art and labour, and takes up to three months to be completed. Created on a 6 x 4 ft loom, Abhimanyu says that if a weaver is forced to abandon the loom for some reason, a second weaver will find it impossible to restart from where they left off and the project will have to start from scratch.

Being in Jaipur is a great help, since a lot of manufacturing happens here. You get great machinery and you can find the raw materials

In Jaipur, one often comes across foreign nationals who have invested in the arts and crafts of the city to create something new and fresh. The pioneer is Brigitte Singh, a Parisian Fine Art student who visited Jaipur decades ago to study miniature painting and went on to set up her own atelier in Amber where she produces a range of furnishings, clothing and accessories. Her textiles are widely recognised as being amongst the finest block prints in the world. The list includes those like Kosiorek who were first training to join the police in Poland but then found their calling in India, and French designer Thierry Journo who runs his flagship store Idli from the precincts of Narain Niwas and Swiss-Italian Barbara Miolini. She has been associated with Jaipur for more than a decade, while the garment industry first drew her in, today she runs two of the most attractive dining spaces in the city. Seated in Caffé Palladio, which opened in September 2016, you will be transported to the gardens of Sicily. Done entirely in the palette of the Mediterranean, here palms sway, oranges bow and herons walk. The menu includes Italian and Turkish delights, from pistachio and lamb patties to parma ham and mozzarella sandwiches. Notoriously media shy, Miolini says, “For me it is very important to have a story. Caffé Palladio is the female side of Bar Palladio (which opened in December 2013). If Palladio is Venice, then the café is Sicily. This space shows that beauty is possible.”

At Caffe Palladio we meet Will Mulford, a Wisconsin native, and the director of programming at Palladio, while he first came to India to learn Hindi and art, he stayed on for four years. A man with a warm laugh and staunch opinions, he asserts that Jaipur has become cool in the last three years, even though its formal (one could say even ‘feudal’) culture remains intact. Having recently decided to leave the city, he says, “When I first moved, there was only the Lit Fest and Anokhi. If I had moved here now and stayed for four years, it would have been fantastic.